King Nebuchadnezzar captured several groups of Jews. He made them into slaves and forced them to live in Babylon. The last group were made prisoners when Jerusalem was set on fire and destroyed. Among the first group, taken eighteen years earlier, were young men from rich families in Judah. One was a boy named Daniel. Daniel and three of his friends came from leading Jewish families. King Nebuchadnezzar had ordered that, of the prisoners, the best-looking, strongest and cleverest boys should be put in a special school. There they would be taught three years by Babylonian teachers. After that, the best of the best would get to work for the king himself.
Now Daniel and his friends did not have to be slaves anymore. But they did have to try and please the Babylonians. And because they were Jewish, because they were different, sometimes this was hard to do.
Daniel and his friends knew they were different. They didn’t mind. They were proud to be members of God’s chosen people.
Daniel’s friends were called Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. Together they were the cleverest of all the boys brought to Babylon. The Babylonians made these boys study the history and books and language of Babylon. And they gave them Babylonian names.
The king’s chief, a man named Ashpenaz, renamed the boys. Daniel became Belteshazzar. Hananiah became Shadrach. Mishael was called Meshach. Azariah was renamed Abed-nego.
King Nebuchadnezzar ordered the boys to eat only the best of foods. They were supposed to eat plenty of fresh vegetables and meat, as well as drink wine every day.
There was only one problem, though. The meat and wine which the Babylonians gave to Daniel and his friends were not the sort which God’s people were allowed to have. The laws which God had given Moses said Jews could eat only certain types of meat. This meat had to come from animals which had been killed in certain ways.
Daniel and his friends had learned these rules as little boys, when Daniel went to Ashpenaz. He pointed at the food on the table. “Please sir, I’ve come to ask your help. I can’t follow the king’s orders.”
Ashpenaz looked at the boy standing before him. God had warmed the heart of Ashpenaz toward Daniel. As he listened, he already knew he would help this boy, no matter what the cost.
“But Daniel, you can’t do that. If the king finds out I haven’t fed you as he ordered, he’ll have me killed. What will I do when he sees your faces looking paler and thinner than those of the other boys?”
Daniel was quiet for a moment. Then he smiled, “I know!”
He ran over to the guard Ashpenaz had chosen for him. “Could you give me and my friends ten days? Feed us only vegetables and give us only water to drink. When ten days are up, see if we look better or worser than the other boys who get the king’s special food. After that you can decide what we should eat.” The guard looked over at Ashpenaz. He nodded. The contest began.
The guard kept his word. For ten days he let Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah eat only vegetables and drink only water. At the end of that time the four boys did exercises in front of Ashpenaz.
Ashpenaz could not believe his eyes! Daniel and his friends had gained more weight than the other boys! Not only that, their eyes sparkled. Their smiles shone. The other boys were out of breath, while Daniel and his friends still had plenty of energy left!
Ashpenaz told the guard that for the rest of the three years the boys could eat only vegetables and drink only water. God continued to bless them and they grew big and strong.
God also helped the four boys become very clever and wise. They learned all they could about the books, history and language of Babylon. Daniel could even tell people what their dreams meant.
When three years were over, Ashpenaz brought the boys to King Nebuchadnezzar. The king tested them on all they had learned. He asked them many hard questions. Of all the boys there, the best and wisest answers were always given by Daniel,
Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. So the king himself chose them to be his advisers.